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11 Toothy Facts About Gharials

Once a widespread predator, the strange, skinny-jawed gharial is now critically endangered and has been restricted to a handful of Nepalese and northern Indian rivers. Here’s everything you should know about the world’s most unusual crocodilian.

1. THE NAME GHARIAL WAS INSPIRED BY A TYPE OF POT.

When a male of this species gets to be around 10 years old, a bulbous knob will start to emerge just behind his nose. (More about that in a minute.) Scientists refer to the knob as either the ghara or gharal. Both terms—along with the animal’s common name—are descended from the Hindi word ghara, which is a round earthenware pot. A common sight in India and Nepal, ghara pots bear a passing resemblance to the gharial’s snout. 

2. IN GENERAL, MALES ARE SIGNIFICANTLY BIGGER THAN FEMALES.

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The gharial is the only living crocodilian that is visibly sexually dimorphic beyond body size: Females don’t have the aforementioned gharas. At around 11 to 14.5 feet long, they're also much smaller than the males, which typically range from 16 to 19.5 feet in length. Some monstrous, 21-foot male specimens have been documented. Such huge individuals can weigh a whopping 1500 pounds, making them some of the heaviest reptiles on Earth. And yet in weight, they're completely upstaged by the famous saltwater crocodile, which can weigh more than a ton.

3. THEY SPECIALIZE IN EATING FISH.

Whereas most crocodilians have rather broad snouts, a gharial’s is so long and thin that it looks like a toothy broomstick. Comical as these jaws may seem, the slender shape is perfectly designed for snapping up the animal’s favorite food: fish. The gharial snout can rapidly slice through the water with minimal resistance, and its jaws are equipped with 106 to 110 needle-like teeth, which interlock when the crocodilian snaps its mouth shut—impaling any fish that happen to be between its jaws.

As it grows, a gharial’s snout changes shape, and its diet evolves accordingly. Since hatchlings have broader jaws than adults do, the youngsters mainly eat insects, crustaceans, and frogs. Over time, their snouts get thinner and longer and become ill-suited for snapping up the large land animals that other crocodilians tend to pursue. Full-grown gharials almost exclusively dine on fish, although big individuals sometimes gulp down the occasional bird, reptile, or small mammal.

4. GHARIALS DON’T HUNT HUMANS (BUT CORPSES ARE ON THE MENU).

With their specialized jaws, gharials just aren’t built to take down big land animals—including us. Attacks on people are exceptionally rare—only a handful have ever been reported, and most cases implicate either a mother gharial who was protecting her nest or an irate specimen that had gotten tangled up in somebody’s fishing net. Not one of these interactions resulted in the loss of human life.

Still, while the beasts don’t kill people, they do scavenge our cadavers. Homo sapiens remains have been found inside gharial stomachs, along with bracelets and jewelry. Corpses are regularly sent down the Ganges river as part of a Hindu funerary custom, and to the gharials that stalk these waters, lifeless bodies make for easy targets. There's another benefit to eating humans, too: Like all reptiles, gharials can’t chew and must gulp down their meals in large chunks. In order to better process its meals, a gharial will swallow hard objects like rocks, which, within the stomach, jostle around and mash up undigested chow. Some theorize that the crocodilians might be deliberately swallowing human jewelry because it helps them to digest real food.

5. A MALE’S GHARA IS USED TO EMIT BUZZING NOISES.

The ghara, which mainly consists of cartilage, is attached to a flap that partially covers the nostrils. Taken as a whole, this apparatus acts like a resonating chamber. When the male exhales, the flap starts vibrating, which can produce a long-range buzzing noise. It’s believed that this sound is used to communicate with females in mating season. Furthermore, males blow bubbles through their gharas during the courtship ritual.

6. GHARIAL LEGS ARE SO WEAK THAT THEY CAN’T EVEN LIFT THEIR BELLIES OFF THE GROUND.

Normally, crocodilians keep their legs sprawled out to the sides on dry land. However, most species can also do what’s known as a “high walk.” To do so, the animals straighten their legs and raise their bellies high above the ground; this allows a crocodile or alligator to stride across rocky terrain without scratching up its underside. In general, the high walk is reserved for short forays, although some crocs—particularly juveniles—will use it during long-distance treks as well.

But to gharials, high walking isn’t an option. Compared to other crocodilians, this species has abnormally weak limb muscles—so when they're on land, gharials must resort to pushing themselves along on their stomachs. They're much better suited to swimming, and, in fact, it’s been argued that the gharial is the world’s most aquatic crocodilian. By and large, gharials only ever haul themselves ashore to bask or to lay their eggs.

7. THEY FORM HAREMS.

Once they reach sexual maturity at age 10, female gharials are inducted into a harem. Usually, these groups consist of four to six members who are jealously guarded by a resident bull male. Come mating season—which lasts from December to January—the resident bull breeds with all the females and fights to keep rival males at bay. Later, as the water levels recede during the dry months (March to May), the nesting season begins.

8. GHARIALS LAY THE LARGEST EGGS OF ANY CROCODILIAN.

Gravid females looking to dig their nests will seek out deep sand banks, and the beaches of small, mid-river islands are considered ideal—predators will be less likely to disturb the eggs there. Using mainly her hind limbs, the female will create a pitcher-shaped burrow into which she'll deposit anywhere from 30 to 50 eggs. On average, each weighs about a third of a pound, making them the biggest eggs produced by any crocodilian

Throughout the incubation period, the gharial will spend every night sitting beside her nest and every day keeping a close eye on it. Finally, after about 70 days, the eggs hatch into chirping, foot-long babies. Hearing their cries, the mother helps dig the newborns out of their burrow. They’ll spend a few months under her protection before striking out on their own.

9. THE SO-CALLED “FALSE GHARIAL” MAY OR MAY NOT BE A CLOSE RELATIVE.

Junkyardsparkle, Flickr // CC0

Present-day crocodilians are divided into three groups. First, there’s the aligatoridae family, which—as the name suggests—includes alligators, along with caimans. Meanwhile, all “true” crocodiles (for example, saltwater and Nile crocs) are contained within another group called the crocodylidae. Last but not least is the third and final subgroup, the gavialidae.

Traditionally, the gharial has been regarded as the only extant member of this last bunch. Yet, some experts believe that another gavialid is wandering around out there. The creature in question is Tomistoma schlegelii, also known as the false gharial (pictured above). A native of southeast Asia, this endangered reptile can grow longer than 16 feet and weigh more than 450 pounds. Like its namesake, the false gharial has a long, slender snout filled with needle-shaped teeth. Yet, despite these features, it’s long been classified within crocodylidae.

Until fairly recently, most biologists believed that this animal’s resemblance to the true gharial was 100 percent superficial. However, some new information has forced scientists to reconsider the relationship between these two predators. Molecular data suggests that Tomistoma should, in fact, be regarded as a member of the gavialidae family. Still, many scientists aren’t sold. At the anatomical level (and in the fossil record), false and true gharials are quite different—especially in terms of tail and jaw musculature. Given all the contradictory evidence we have to sort through, it looks like this debate won’t be settled anytime soon.

10. FULL-GROWN GHARIALS PREFER FAST-MOVING RIVERS.

Juveniles tend to frequent side streams and tranquil backwaters. Mature gharials, on the other hand, are usually found in deep, fast-flowing rivers. Most of their time is spent in the calmer sections of these bodies, away from the high-velocity currents. Adults are especially fond of river bends and confluences, where they’re known to gather en masse.

11. SADLY, THERE MAY BE FEWER THAN 400 ADULTS LEFT IN THE WILD.

Overfishing, poaching, and habitat loss are all contributing to the decline of this species. Invasive prey items also bear some of the blame. In an attempt to boost the local fishing industry, African tilapia have been deliberately released into Indian rivers since the 1950s. It turns out that the foreign fish are terrible for gharials, which can die of gout after eating them. It’s believed that the tilapia contained chemicals from polluted rivers and when the gharials ate them, the toxins became concentrated, leading to gout. Or it’s possible that some unidentified toxin could be to blame.

Factors like these have put the gharial’s long-term survival in jeopardy. For millennia, they patrolled the rivers of Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. But over the past century, they’ve gone extinct in all four countries. Today, the species occupies just 2 percent of its former range. According to the World Wildlife Federation, a meager 1100 wild gharials currently reside in India, while fewer than 100 holdouts live in Nepal. It’s estimated that the global population of adult specimens has fallen below 400.

On the positive side, there have been record hatchings in recent years, and this year, 2500 hatchlings were counted on the Chambal River. Hopefully, captive breeding efforts and education initiatives will be able to replenish their numbers. Who would want to live in a world without gharials, anyway?

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Atlanta Shelters Give Pups a Temporary Home for the Holidays
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The holidays are looking a little brighter for adoptable dogs from two animal shelters in Atlanta, Georgia. As ABC News reports, a new program called Home for the Pawlidays is providing temporary homes to longer-term residents of Fulton County Animal Services and DeKalb County Animal Services for the week of Thanksgiving.

The initiative was organized by Atlanta's LifeLine Animal Project, a local group dedicated to providing healthcare and homes to shelter dogs. The dogs that were chosen for the project may be older, have special health needs, or other issues that make it more difficult to find them forever homes.

But from November 18 to 25, the dogs are getting to spend time away from the shelter and in the homes of loving foster families.

“We were thinking, everyone gets a break from work, and they should get a break from the shelter,” LifeLine’s public relations director Karen Hirsch told ABC News.

Some caretakers have already fallen in love with their four-legged house guests. Foster Heather Koth told ABC that she hadn’t been considering adoption, but after meeting Missy the shelter dog, she now plans to foster her until she has a permanent home or possibly adopt the dog herself.

And for the dogs that can’t be kept by their temporary owners, just a week of quality playtime and sleeping in a real bed can make a huge impact. You can check out photos of the pets who are benefiting from the program this week below.

[h/t ABC News]

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25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys
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Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.

1. THE NORTH AMERICAN WILD TURKEY POPULATION WAS ALMOST WIPED OUT.

Wild turkey
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Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.

2. TURKEY APPENDAGES ARE LIKE MOOD RINGS.

Wild turkey
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The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.

3. TURKEYS CAN FLY.

Wild turkey in flight
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Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.

4. THEY CAN ALSO SWIM.

Wild turkey drinking water
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Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”

5. TURKEY POOP CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.

6. TURKEY PROBABLY WASN'T ON THE PILGRIMS' MENU.

A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement
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Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.

7. BEN FRANKLIN DIDN'T REALLY WANT THE TURKEY TO BE OUR NATIONAL BIRD.

A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

8. ANOTHER TURKEY FAN: ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT BELIEVED THE BIRDS WERE CUNNING PREY.

Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

10. WILD TURKEYS HAVE BETTER VISION THAN YOU DO.

Close up of wild turkey's head
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Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.

11. THE TOP TURKEY-PRODUCING STATE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

Domesticated turkeys on a farm
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You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...

12. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON MAY DATE BACK TO ABE LINCOLN.

President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.

13. THE FIRST TV DINNER MEAL: THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Thanksgiving TV dinner
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In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.

14. NATIONAL TURKEY LOVERS’ MONTH ISN’T WHEN YOU THINK.

Grilled meats on a silver tray
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Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.

15. THE TURKEY YOU’LL BE EATING IS PROBABLY ABOUT 18 WEEKS OLD.

Roasted turkey on a platter
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That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.

16. THERE WAS ALMOST A TURKEY SIDEKICK IN POCAHONTAS.

Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.

17. NOT ALL TURKEYS GOBBLE.

Close up shot of a wild turkey
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If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.

18. IF YOU DON’T EAT TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING, YOU’RE IN THE MINORITY.

A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

19. TURKEY CRAVINGS CAUSED A SPIKE IN KFC SALES IN JAPAN.

A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign
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When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.

20. THERE IS PROPER TURKEY TERMINOLOGY.

A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”

21. THE MAYA USED TURKEYS AS SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.

22. DURING THE ‘70S, YOU COULD CALL JULIA CHILD FOR TURKEY ADVICE ON THANKSGIVING.

Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.

23. BIG BIRD IS A TURKEY.

Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.

24. THE BIRD IS NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
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But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.

25. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS DARK MEAT?

Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper
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It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

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